Book Review: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

image14 out of 5 Stars

I was cruising through Goodreads and came across a book title over and over again. It was as if the universe was trying to tell me to read this book and the fact that the cover is FULL of awards, I figured I should listen to the universe. Especially since it nearly hit me smack in the face at the book store. The book I kept coming across is “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Our story begins with 15-year old Aristotle, who goes by Ari because living up to such a big, important name is really difficult. He lives in El Paso, Texas and is part of a family who immigrated from Mexico. He is very quiet and self-conscience about everything. His mom is outgoing and tries to constantly engage him. His dad is a Vietnam Vet and is very quiet about everything. Ari’s brother is in prison and he can’t get any answers as to what happened. He has 2 sisters who are much older than he is and treat him more like their child. He doesn’t really have any friends and isn’t sure how to be a friend. He just feels so angry all of the time.

It is summer break and he is bored and doesn’t know what to do. He decides to go to the local pool even though he doesn’t know how to swim. It is there he meets Dante. Dante offers to teach him how to swim and they become fast friends. Dante is full of confidence, loves art and poetry, he really has a sense of who he is yet doesn’t really want to claim his Mexican heritage. He is fairly sure he is gay, but the teen years are full of experiments and he also tries dating girls, just to make sure. He is the Yang to Ari’s Yin. They complete each other without realizing it and Dante expresses how much he loves Ari after a while. Ari isn’t really sure what love is and is honest about not being able to return the kind of love Dante is looking for. Dante says that is ok, and he wants Ari to just be his friend.

An accident just before Dante moves to Chicago for a year leaves Ari going through therapy and all sorts of healing. His anger comes back again and he is struggling. His parents start to recognize that a few things at home need to change and other developments in the story really force that. The constant is the love they have for each other and a willingness to understand various points of view. There is an aunt who Ari learns is gay and this helps him understand his family more which in turn allows him to understand himself more. He realizes why he is so angry and so guarded. He learns how to love and what he wants and his family becomes a much tighter unit that gives him the security he needs.

This novel is recommended for kids 12 and up and I would say that is probably spot on depending on how your child is developing. This is a coming of age story exploring sexuality (there is nothing about people having sex and this story is more about the people they love), there is swearing and the boys talk about kissing girls, they dance naked in the rain, and there is a brief comment about masturbation. As kids start feeling things there is so much confusion as they are trying to work out the lives they want to live and who they are. My 10 year old is not developmentally ready for this book just yet, but in a year or two I am going to recommend he read it. I think it will be a great one to help him feel like he is not alone in the confusion of coming into his sexuality. For kids who might not identify as LGBTQIA this is a great book to understand another point of view which I think is so important in this day and age. For kids who identify as LGBTQIA this might help validate feelings and help them through different situations they find themselves in. They will be able to see themselves in a story. There is something for everyone here.

 

For instance, there is a big hardship that Ari goes through with his healing and not being able to do all of the things he wants to do. He has to work through it and find a way to overcome the difficult situation. I also really love the “maturity” of the kids. Ari gets his first car and there are rules that go along with that that he is respectful of. He gets his first job. Ari wants to get drunk for the first time and he has a couple of friends who go with him to the dessert and they drive him home since they weren’t drinking. I feel like there are so many positive messages throughout the book and everyone will take something away.

This is a great book for adults to read as well to remind us of our feelings as we went through this horribly awkward phase where hormones are raging and feelings are confused. I think it can remind us of our feelings and can assist us in helping our kids through the situation and reinstate any empathy needed to be open to our children growing up.

This novel shows 4 of the 27 awards that it has won on the cover but it has been recognized by various organizations and for very good reason – the book is beautifully written and the story is really lovely. Mr. Alire Sáenz has penned a gorgeous story that is told from Ari’s point of view. 

I was not at all disappointed with the universe’s suggestion here and highly recommend this book.

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